About that third date: It’s when the sixties met their maker. On that night, Charles Manson, a drifter turned desert-dwelling cult leader, conspired with four members of his “Family” to hunt Sharon Tate and a string of other victims of their now-infamous killing spree. The Manson Family dressed and acted the part of hippie youths, but replaced psychedelia and free love with psychopathy and death, symbolically shattering Americans’ illusions of the counterculture and effectively ending an era.
In Tarantino’s retelling of these seismic events, Sharon (Margot Robbie) and her husband, a budding young director named Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), are Rick’s new neighbors on Beverly Hills’ Cielo Drive, and the ebbs and flows of Cliff’s daily routine pulls him fatalistically toward Manson’s (Damon Herriman) lurking lackeys.
“That’s the dangerous aspect of the movie,” Tarantino says, unpacking in structural terms how this ripped-from-the-headlines horror figures into the climax. Most of the general population is already familiar with Sharon’s real-life demise, he reasons, so “the fact that we know she has a destiny that’s inescapable is our story. For most of the movie—that Saturday and Sunday in February—we watch Rick on his day at work, Cliff doing errands, and Sharon driving around… also doing errands, which is what people do in Los Angeles,” he jokes. “But the tragedy in the story creates a dramatic, forward momentum.”
Of course, this narrative thrust is just as much about destination as it is about destiny. In one of Tarantino’s favorite scenes in the film, the winds of the day take Cliff to Spahn Ranch—the idyllic Southern California acreage that once served as a filming site for Westerns and B-movies before the Manson Family moved in. The place feels familiar, Tarantino says—it’s a set Cliff once worked on—“but now it’s dilapidated and become something else… this hippie lair. Still, there’s the trappings of the Western underneath, poking through the geography unmistakably. Whereas Rick is paid to act out Western fantasies over the course of his day, Cliff plays out this macho, puffy-chested fantasy for real, in a standoff with these weird, malevolent hippies.”
As a setting, Spahn Ranch drips with symbolism—a screenwriter’s wet dream. But its inhabitants, while important, never chew too much scenery. “We’re not really telling Manson’s story,” Tarantino asserts. “I use him very little. The best metaphor for how I use the Family is this: I’m painting a lovely picture, with lovely colors, of a Los Angeles that I remember. It’s pop-arty, because we’re in a pop-arty time. It’s a pretty painting—a happy painting. But, over the course of the movie, there are cuts of the Family moving around town, doing their business like the other characters. And whenever they show up, they’re a mildew—a rot—on the side of the canvas. That mildew slowly spreads across the whole painting, infecting it like a disease.”
If you’ve ever read Tarot, you’ll know that pulling a Death card from the deck doesn’t signify literal death, but change. The point is that something old must die in order to usher in the new. By writing Rick, Cliff, Sharon, and the Manson Family into the same alternate timeline, Tarantino shrewdly signifies death two-fold. His story structure, like a runaway train, sends that which is figuratively dying—Hollywood’s Golden Age, the sixties writ large—and that which will literally die—Sharon—on an irreversible collision course.
Wrapping thoughts inside of thoughts, holding his screenwriting method out in front of him to examine its moving parts, Tarantino laughs as he wonders aloud whether his description of his craft amounts to “gobbledygook.” Parallel narratives, movies-within-movies, comprehensive character biographies before a story even begins to take shape… so much of his process sounds fanciful to a screenwriter in the abstract. But what does it look like in action?
“A writer-director who wanted to explore my way of writing characters and scripts would be going a different way than almost anybody else who would teach you how to do it,” he says. “It’s not that I’m so special. It’s just that you have to invest in the concept of being a writer—not just writing something for yourself to direct. That means you’ve got to commit to the literature of what you’re doing, rather than worry about that finished movie at the end of the road. I don’t mean you have to write this highfalutin, 500-page novel. But in a weird way, you’re writing your script more for you and your actors to read. Then, with you leading the way, your actors will transfer this document into a movie.”
With something like Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, the literary legwork Tarantino put in was straightforward: building Rick’s Hollywood and modeling his filmography after several actors who forged similar careers. The Hateful Eight, he tells me, presented “a situation where I got tricky with backstory in a way I hadn’t before.”
When it came time to direct scenes that introduce ex-Confederate militiaman Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who treks to Red Rock, Wyoming and announces himself as the new sheriff in town, Tarantino saw an opportunity to use sleight of hand, withholding his character’s backstory as clandestine knowledge. “Part of the thing in the movie is you don’t know… ‘Is he the sheriff, or is he not the sheriff?,’” he continues. “I told Walton, ‘I know what I think, but I don’t want you to know what I think. And I don’t want to know what you think! I don’t want to direct you while thinking you think one way or the other. And, whatever you think, I don’t want you to tell anybody else—not the other actors, not anyone. I don’t want anything that they’re doing affected by what you think about your character.’” If he and his actors went into the shoot blind, Tarantino explains, each arbiter of the scene could neutralize each other arbiter of the scene. Since The Hateful Eight is a murder mystery, “keeping a sense of gamesmanship in my approach to the material felt right,” he says.
Tarantino’s use of backstory got trickier still while directing Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Major Marquis Warren. A bounty hunter hauling three corpses for cash to Red Rock, Warren has his own agenda. After hitching a ride on a stagecoach, he ends up stranded with other shady characters at Minnie’s Haberdashery—a lodge with a damned broken lock. “I took Sam aside from the rest of the cast and said, ‘Look: I’ve got a whole other backstory for you that has nothing to do with these guys,’” he explains. “‘I don’t want them to know jack shit about what you and I are over here talking about. You’re on your way to a whole other movie—another movie you were going to be in, and you never get there, because you get stuck at Minnie’s. You’re coming from a whole other perspective, so there will be certain things going on in the scene that you know about, but these other characters don’t know about. The audience doesn’t know you know it, but you and I know you know it.’”
Later in the shoot, Tarantino would occasionally forget to keep their secret. “Every once in a while, I would direct Sam to do something in front of everybody else and he’d mumble to me, ‘I don’t know, that doesn’t quite go with the plan you and I talked about…’ I’d say, ‘Oh, you’re right, forget that!’” He cackles at the lengths they went to keep the cast and crew guessing: “No one knew what the hell we were talking about! They still don’t!”
Tarantino is often approached on set, he says, by actors who ask, “It seems important that you mentioned this in the script. Is there any way you can write a scene so that information can be gotten across?” Sometimes he’ll say, “Yes,” other times, “No.” A moviemaker could spend 20 minutes giving audiences everything they need to know about a character, he says, but the thing is, “You won’t really know what backstory will look like until after you shoot the movie and you’re editing it. It’s there in the script, it informs everything. But it’s not for the audience. They won’t care.”